The Great Buffalo Caper
When two Boulder businessmen financed the creation of a one-of-a-kind piece of art—a buffalo skeleton with Native American myths carved over every inch of bone by an artist named "Big Jim"—they thought it was an opportunity to be a part of something important. And, just maybe, they might make some money. But what started as a high-minded project quickly devolved into a surreal mystery.
One morning last fall, Peder Lund walked into the conference room of his Paladin headquarters and plopped a cardboard box on the table in front me. Stuck on the side of the box was a computer-generated shipping label that read: How to Make $100,000 a Year as a Private Detective. It was obviously a box that had once contained copies of that particular title his company had published, but was no longer used for that purpose; as Lund himself had written on it in black marker, the box now contained "Buffalo B.S." "It's all yours," he said, turning to leave, as if the box were a rotting cadaver. "Have at it. I'll be back in a while to see if you have any questions." A quick scan of the box's contents revealed a Buffalo LLC agreement; two art appraisal reports—one from 1997, another from 2000; a thick deposition transcript of James G. Durham in "Sacred Buffalo Inc. vs. Paladin Enterprises Inc.;" and a handful of newspaper clippings with headlines like, "Police try to flesh out attack on buffalo skeleton."
Rippberger first came to know Lund at the pump. Before Rippberger bought that gas station, he worked there. As a skinny kid with glasses, he would be manning the station and the handsome, curly haired Lund would drive up in whatever his latest sports car was. Lund and the kid would chat. Rippberger thought Lund had a pretty sweet life. "Some of the time when he'd come in on a Saturday morning," as Rippberger said to me recently, "it was hard to tell if he was starting his day or ending his Friday night." They'd pick up their conversation when they bumped into each other around town and became rather friendly. Rippberger's admiration for the dashing Lund grew as he learned that Mr. Nightlife had been a Green Beret in Vietnam, and had parlayed those interests into Paladin Press, a successful imprint specializing in books about weapons, defense, covert operations, and unusual (and sometimes illegal) professions.
Just as Rippberger had predicted, when he and Durham met with Lund, Lund indeed thought the scrimshawed buffalo sounded like a grand idea. Of course, as Rippberger had also figured, if not counted on, Lund had some ideas of his own for what was quickly becoming the Sacred Buffalo project. Paladin has published hundreds of titles, covering everything from jewelry to jihads. Regardless of the subject, virtually all of the books have had two things in common: a tantalizing subject and a pretty incredible story line. That's not to say the books were always well written. Being the shrewd former commando he was, it seemed Lund tried to find book material that was interesting on its face, at least to his audience, along with a paint-by-numbers plot, precisely so he wouldn't have to worry much about the writer lousing up Paladin's investment.
And so Lund liked the Sacred Buffalo project. There was this Durham character and his story, evidently intertwined with the legends of the American Indian, and—and!—soon there'd be the buffalo skeleton piece to behold. The three men agreed to Lund's plan of embedding a Boulder-based writer and a photographer with Durham to record the story of the project. The book, which would be entitled Sacred Buffalo: The Lakota Way for a New Beginning, would wrap up as the Sacred Buffalo masterpiece was completed, and would be sold concurrent with the buffalo's tour. Of course there would be a tour: museums, universities, wherever. The book would provide a revenue stream all on its own. At the very least, Paladin would sell some copies and generate buzz about Durham and the piece, which might enhance the lure and value of the Sacred Buffalo. After all, the people want to see something that's aesthetically striking, but they also want a story to go along with it.
Rippberger, Lund, and Big Jim formed the Buffalo LLC. Per the terms of the agreement, each had a 33 1/3 percent share in any profits to be made from the buffalo. Meanwhile, the three struck a gentleman's operating agreement: Paladin would cover the cost of the book; Rippberger and Lund would fund Durham's construction of the Sacred Buffalo; and Durham would create the mystical work of art. And, as the artist and American Indian character he was, Big Jim would tour with the buffalo, sharing his visions with the public. All that was left was to get the scrimshawed buffalo built and get the magical, rolling bones show on the road.
In my dream about the Sacred Buffalo," so goes the first sentence of the introduction to the Sacred Buffalo book coauthored by Durham, "I simply walked away at the end without saying a word." And it appears that after many years of talking to all kinds of lawyers and investigators about his buffalo, Big Jim indeed aims to walk away from it and say no more. Last fall, I reached Durham by phone. He suggested that if we were going to talk that we do it in person at his home in South Dakota, but my subsequent calls and e-mails to him in the hopes of scheduling the visit went unreturned. There is, however, the record Big Jim left behind in that 187-page book, chockablock with photographs, fabled history, visions, and dreams.
Once in business with his Boulder-based partners and patrons, Durham returned home to South Dakota and in the summer of 1994 set about his work. First things first: He needed a bison skeleton. Big Jim wrote in the book about his quest to find a worthy buffalo. Evidently, he lay in the middle of a herd of charging bison; he went into a cave and prayed over a rock that reminded him of a "human embryo," only to discover the rock "had been in the stomach of a dinosaur;" he had a staring contest with a buffalo he would have killed with his knife if his wife hadn't been with him. Finally, though, he simply bought a bull buffalo from a rancher. The buffalo was killed in an undisclosed manner. A buddy of his named Les Lutz skinned it, and Durham shipped the bones off to the Ohio State University veterinary school, known for assembling skeletons for museums. The faculty and students were so impressed by the story of Big Jim's visions that they agreed to spend some 780 hours on the process of preparing the bones free of charge.
It should be noted that scrimshawing is not a Native American tradition. It is a nautical art that began with whalers in the early 19th century. Initially, it was not considered art as much as it was a hobby. With time to kill at night, the men aboard ship would whittle designs on the ample supply of whalebones and teeth scattered about their vessels. In time, the handiwork became more sophisticated and a desired folk art. In Moby-Dick, Herman Melville refers to "lively sketches of whales and whaling-scenes, graven by the fishermen themselves on sperm whale-teeth...." Big Jim had it in his mind to be the first to apply the tradition to bison bones and represent it as Native American.
A bull buffalo skeleton is comprised of some 180 bones. Even with orbital sanders and X-acto knives, realizing Big Jim's vision, which amounted to etching more than a thousand scenes on the bones, would be an undertaking. He needed a place to work; he needed help. Durham wrote that he searched high and low, traveling to Wyoming and Colorado, hoping for a studio like the one he'd seen in his dream. He ended up renting a dilapidated schoolhouse in the town of Whitewood, South Dakota. As far as Big Jim finding the chosen ones who would assist him in bringing the sacred piece to life, the Creator worked in mysterious ways. Down in Florida, where Big Jim had attended biker week in Daytona Beach, he recruited Harry Lindsay, a fellow Vietnam veteran. Lindsay claimed the boots on his feet were the same ones he wore in Nam, and because he fancied BMW motorcycles his pals called him "Beemer." It was also in Florida that the Great Spirit led Durham to Teri Krukowski, a striking middle-age biker babe and self-described "dancer," who in her spare time had taken up engraving the sort of items a biker babe-dancer would engrave: knives, guns, and motorcycles. Beemer joked that they ought to have T-shirts made with the slogan, "Among the Wretched Ones."